Landlords have a legal responsibility to keep the premises they let out in a safe condition to use. That responsibility is not unlimited, however, as a recent decision of the Supreme Court shows.
The landlord concerned had sold a flat in a block of flats for £130,000 in 2006 with a ground rent of £195 per annum. The flat consisted of 'the plastered coverings and plaster work of the external and internal walls and partitions and ceilings, and the floorboards and surfaces of the floors'. It excluded the 'framework' of the building including the walls and partitions.
The flat had the right of access over the entrance hall, staircases, lifts and landings.
The landlord was responsible for keeping the common areas, which included the 'exterior of the front hall' of the building, in 'good and substantial repair', but the lease required any disrepair to be notified to the landlord in writing.
The case was brought because a tenant was hurt when he tripped over an uneven paving stone when taking out his rubbish. He sued the landlord, claiming that his injury was due to the landlord's failure to keep the paving in good and substantial repair.
The tenant was awarded damages, but the landlord appealed, not against the sum awarded but on the ground that he had not been informed of the need to repair the paving as was required under the lease. He also claimed that the paved area, which was entirely outside the building, could not be part of the exterior of the front hall.
In his judgment, Lord Neuberger first considered the issue of whether or not the landlord was responsible for the paved area, and concluded, "It is hard to see how a feature which is not in any normal sense part of a building and lies wholly outside that building, and in particular outside the floors, ceilings, walls and doors which encase the front hall of the building, can fairly be described as part of the exterior of that front hall."
On that basis he concluded, "The fact that a piece of property is a necessary means of access to a building cannot be sufficient for it to constitute part of the exterior of that building."
This made ruling on the second issue unnecessary, but the Court nonetheless commented that, on the facts as in this case, the landlord also would not have been liable for the accident as he had not been given notice of the disrepair which required rectification.
The decision will come as a relief to landlords. Had it gone the other way, it could have had serious implications for commercial landlords throughout the UK.